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Thinking About the Movies: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

by dave heaton

Few of the reasons your average Lord of the Rings fanatic might give in praising the films match my own reaction to them, yet I enjoyed all three parts of the series very much. Spectacle for its own sake doesn't mean much to me, the backstory of how much hard work went into making the film seems irrelevant, I've never read the books, and the plot itself is fairly confusing to me - ask me to explain it, or even remember most of the main characters' names, and I'd be at a loss. What I love about the films, what really pulled me into them, was how successfully they exude an overwhelming sense of impending doom.

The Lord of the Rings story has an inherently apocalyptic feeling which is made palpable at every step, mostly through the heightened atmosphere collectively attained by the look of the film, the music, the acting, and the way the various storylines entwine (at times you're alternating from one character's seeming dead-end to another's and back). It's one thing for the characters to feel like they're on a quest that's bound to fail, it's another for that sense to be communicated to viewers who logically know that everything's going to turn out okay in the end (whether they're familiar with the books or not). At every point I know that they'll be fine, of course I do, yet the films make you feel like all is futile; they fill you with a certain kind of dread. It's augmented by the fact that the journey here has high stakes: the ring represents extreme power, the forces that want it are presented as so evil that the world might as well be ending if things don't turn out right for the film's heroes. There's so many scenes throughout the film, especially those involving the quest of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) to destroy the ring, that convey that hopeless feeling in a remarkably vivid way, especially as they're joined by Gollum (Andy Serkis), the junkie-like, tormented creature who embodies both the good/evil power struggle inherent in the film and the overriding sense of despair.

The fact that I latched onto that feeling of certain doom to carry me through the films is probably why it's the second film (The Two Towers) that impresses me the most, and the third film, The Return of the King, that I have the most problems with. It's not merely the inevitable happy ending of the third film that I reacted to - indeed, the first half of the film includes some of the most terrifying moments of Frodo and Sam's trip, it's where Gollum goes from friendly but fiendish to menacing. It's mostly the way that the film tries so hard to be more than just an adventure film (to be more than it is, I'd say). The speeches on big themes like bravery and loyalty, the attempts at poignancy, the incessant emphasis on the friendship of the main characters, the recurring jokes about how dwarves and elves are supposed to hate each other (those attempts at humor might be even worse than the heart-tugging scenes; they make me uncomfortable in that reminds me of being in a room filled with D&D fanatics joking about their 12-sided dice), and an awkwardly upbeat half-hour post-ending ending just don't work. They come off like an obvious and somewhat silly attempt to cement the film's status as an important work of art, as more than just a fun, slightly scary ride. The thing is, they don't need any of that - the atmosphere is enough. You can praise the enormous battle scenes, the special effects and the dramatic scope of the films as much as you want, but to me the strength of the series is in those small, focused moments of absolute horror, when you sense that the world is about to end and there's nothing you can do.

"Thinking About the Movies" is a new, regular column featuring my thoughts on movies, old and new, popular and obscure. Sometimes they'll be focused on one film, sometimes I'll be rambling about many, and I reserve the right to be fairly loose about how I write, to not get wrapped up in the routines and formalities that would be implied by the word "review."

Issue 20, February 2004

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